No Spain, No Gain

Served in a terra cotta bowl, almejas Botin, clams in a tangy tomato sauce, were marginally better. The dozen or so clams were small but plump; the sauce was rich with olive oil and rife with chopped peppers and onions, but an overall fishy, salty flavor marred the dish. At least the clams evoked Galicia, the region of Spain where shellfish reigns.

The Spanish favor eggs as tapas, and Botin features them scrambled with ingredients such as salmon or as omelets (known as tortillas). The huevos revueltos de la casa, scrambled eggs with blood sausage and potatoes, were, as one of my guests commented, "genuine." A hearty prelude, these would have also made for a good breakfast, the potatoes crisp and the chopped blood sausage generous. I would have preferred, however, that the egg be thoroughly mixed -- "scrambled" to me has always meant one golden color rather than stripes of yellow and white.

Botin has several main course specialties, such as the roast suckling pig that Hemingway enjoyed, and squid sauteed in its own ink. The latter was unavailable the night we visited, as was roast veal with peas, a dish for which the Gonzalez family has installed wood-burning ovens. We settled instead for an unevenly grilled filete de ternera, veal mignon with one end medium-rare and the other medium-well. The meat -- flat, as if it had been pounded -- had a pleasantly musky, smoky flavor and was still juicy despite being overcooked on one end. Wonderfully snappy French fries were an enticing side dish, but an assortment of chopped, previously frozen vegetables, boiled until they were gray, were visually unappealing.

Two fish dishes had been destroyed. A simple fillet of grouper, requested grilled, had been pan-fried to the point of disintegration. Every time we touched the fish with a fork, more of it would fall apart. The accompaniments, a trio of peeled white potatoes and the above-mentioned, overcooked vegetable melange, provided no relief. A seafood casserole, cazuela de pescado, was practically inedible, despite a light, tasty sauce highlighted by mushrooms and pimientos. The breaded sections of sole, grouper, and monkfish fillets were indistinguishable from each other, as bland and mushy as supermarket fish sticks. One shrimp and a sole ring of squid garnished the fish.

I was most unhappy with perdiz estofado (stewed partridge). The two pieces of game bird, soaked in a good, dark wine sauce chock full of tired peas and asparagus, had been simmered so long that the bones had turned black and the flesh had shrunk. I did manage to coax some partridge free, but the meat was devoid of moisture, virtually petrified.

Many times restaurants have been redeemed in my eyes by their desserts. If anything, dessert here just made matters worse. Tarta de Santiago, a classic almond tart, was ruined by the addition of raw rum, which overwhelmed the slice we were served. And Botin should be ashamed of its crema catalana. Served ice-cold, the custard was gruel-thin and topped not with a crust of burnt sugar but with the appearance of one, as if the chef had melted a burnt-sienna crayon over the top.

One of my companions had been looking forward to taking some Spanish clients, in town for the week, to Botin. "Now I can't," she said glumly. "All they'd do is tell me how much better the food is at home." I'm sure it is, if only because it couldn't possibly be worse.

Botin
2101 Coral Way, Miami; 856-6030. Lunch Tuesday -- Friday from noon to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Sauteed artichokes
$6.25
Clams Botin
$10.25
Stewed partridge
$15.90
Veal mignon
$16.90
Grilled grouper
$17.50

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